If you care about the future of our planet and are making small changes to your lifestyle to do your part, you’re probably already recycling, carrying your reusable totes to the supermarket, and biking instead of driving when you can.
But rarely do we stop to think about how what we eat affects our environment.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you do truly care.
So, I’ll give it to you straight.
The thing is, our food choices matter a lot. Because we, the consumer, are the driving force behind the food industry. And the food industry contributes a great deal to the climate crisis. Here’s how.
Greenhouse Gas Emission and the Food Industry
In order to understand how the food industry contributes to climate change, we first have to understand the concept of the Greenhouse Effect.
Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, causing our average temperatures to rise. The act of greenhouse gases trapping heat in our atmosphere is known as the Greenhouse Effect. You may have heard about this in the context of Global Warming.
Rising temperatures due to the Greenhouse Effect have caused a shift in our climate, leading to melting ice caps which then raise sea levels, extreme weather conditions including storms, and sometimes even drought.
The food industry accounts for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, you read that right. A quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions comes from the production, transportation, and retail of the foods we eat. Let’s dive in a little deeper.
Food Production and the Climate Crisis
Poor practices in the actual production of our food are the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in our food supply chain. An estimated 80% of the overall greenhouse gas emissions from the food industry are released during the process of producing crops and livestock for our consumption.
The factors that contribute to these high emissions during food production are deforestation, farming, and energy used during processing.
Clearing forests for use of farming is a double edge sword. Forests act as carbon sinks, meaning they use the CO2 that we emit for photosynthesis. Simply put, the trees eat the carbon we release. So when we clear forests and knock down trees to make way for agriculture, we are replacing a carbon sink with a carbon emitter.
Farming and agriculture alone account for over 10% of our global greenhouse gas emissions in the way of nitrogen-emitting fertilizers, methane produced from manure, and energy used for harvesting, including the production of animal feed.
Processing harvested crops and preparing animals and animal byproducts for consumption uses an enormous amount of energy. This energy is created by burning fossil fuels, which—you guessed it—emits more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Quick note: On average, emissions from plant-based foods are up to 50 times lower than animal-based foods.
Food Transportation and the Climate Crisis
Another contributing factor to greenhouse gas emissions is the transportation of your food from farm to plate. This includes the transport from the farm, to the grocery store, to your home, including the energy it takes to refrigerate and keep some foods frozen during transportation.
The distance a particular food item has to travel before you consume it is referred to as it’s food miles.
Crops require very specific conditions to thrive. Think about it this way. If you are eating a summer squash during a snowstorm, that squash you are eating was most likely not grown and harvested around the corner. It would have had to been cultivated far away, in a warm environment, and then harvested, kept cold and fresh (probably with environmentally damaging preservatives), and transported to you all before it starts to go bad.
Transporting quickly usually means it is done by truck or airplane, two of the biggest contributors to transportation-associated greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s easy to forget when we live in a world of convenience and abundance that food is seasonal. And eating food that is out of season means that you are increasing demand for food that has to travel far to get to you.
Food Retail and the Climate Crisis
Food retail refers to the practices that our grocery stores and other food retailers use to keep food fresh and cool. It can also refer to the tremendous amount of food waste that happens at the retail level.
Retailers also keep fresh produce stocked year-round, regardless of their seasonality, fueling our disconnect between what to eat and when.
Between the production, transportation, and distribution of our food, the Food Industry is a massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
The good news is that the Food Industry is, well, an industry, just like every other industry in this world. Meaning that it is directly driven by us, the consumer. We have a say. So, what choices can we make to reduce our ecological footprint? Check out this article on 9 Food Choices We Can Make to find out.